Building Strong Teams
A Blueprint for Change
Stop by St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in Brooklyn on a Sunday and you’ll enter a church filled with people who hail from the United States, the Caribbean, and other parts of the world; infants, children, young adults, parents, and grandparents. All persons are warmly greeted at the door and parishioners young and old can be found sitting in the pews, singing in the choir, leading the readings and prayers, collecting the offerings, or preparing food for fellowship after the service.
Should you stop by during the week, you might find a group of seniors enjoying lunch and conversation following a worship service. Or, perhaps you’re in time for arts and crafts, exercise, or maybe a workshop offering basic computer skills. If you come by after school, you’ll likely hear the laughter of school age children participating in our after school programs. Or, maybe you’ll find one of our staff talking with a couple about their upcoming wedding.
Our church is vibrant, alive, and very connected to our community, as well as to The Episcopal Church at the diocesan, provincial, and denominational levels.
It hasn’t always been that way. In the early 1980s as the congregation plummeted from a high of nearly 1,000 to 40 members, it was time for the congregation – and its leaders - to face some difficult truths.
Like many churches, we’ve had our good times and our bad times. Founded in 1875 as the first Episcopal Church for colored people in Brooklyn, we’ve had many homes – both owned and rented – seen our church buildings burn to the ground, and opened and closed two schools. We’d been blessed with charismatic rectors, able to rescue us after each setback, and yet, with time, the same challenges – often related to finances – began to surface. The congregation was once again in debt; we needed to close the school. People were leaving the church. The priest resigned.
It was time to break this longstanding pattern: The vestry resigned making it possible for the bishop to make St. Augustine’s an aided parish and to take control of our affairs.
One of the first – and perhaps the most difficult – truths we learned was the role we, as church leaders had played in this cycle. Over the course of many years, the congregation and the vestry had become comfortable with our rectors taking the lead, not only of the spiritual but also the administrative aspects of our congregation. We stopped paying attention and let too much power become vested in one person.
It was time for the congregation to learn a new model of leadership, one where the laity claimed their role as full partners in decision making.
Our leadership team was facing some big challenges: St. Augustine’s had a million dollar debt and our buildings were in disrepair. We didn’t have any insurance.
Working with the bishop, diocesan staff, and elders we re-learned how to run a congregation: We revised outdated bylaws, established norms for how we wanted to work together, and identified concrete tasks that needed to be done to be released from aided parish status and prepared for the day when we would be released from aided parish status and again elect our lay leaders.
When the bishop appointed a new interim priest who subsequently became priest-in-charge, the bishop’s committee was determined to make this new relationship a true partnership. Because the congregation had no voice in the bishop’s appointment decision, some wondered if once again, St. Augustine’s would be led by “another man who would dictate.” These fears were soon allayed as the new priest Howard Kently Williams, began to reach out to long time members of the congregation, visiting us in our homes, talking and listening, and sharing his belief that the only way forward was by building a strong lay and clergy leadership team.
From these conversations, specific areas of interest and concern were identified and committees formed to work on them, including finance, leadership, and spirituality/formation. With the congregation still an aided parish, members were appointed by the bishop rather than elected and both long-time and newer members of the congregation were asked to serve. Committees met monthly, worked from agendas, kept minutes, and established procedures to account for funds collected – business as usual for many congregations, but new to us at St. Augustine’s.
As we worked, we began to sort through issues, grouping related organizations/functions together and looked to identify root causes of our problems and prioritize what needed to be addressed first.
As our work progressed, we discovered and prioritized three areas of focus:
- Spirituality and formation – our food
- Mission and ministry – our work
- Management and finance – our infrastructure
Spirituality and Formation
Taking our inspiration from 1 Corinthians 12:12-13, our first priority was to focus on making disciples by participating in the life of Christ. In addition to Sunday worship, we developed opportunities for Bible Study, retreats, revivals, meditation, pastoral care, and Sunday school. At Easter, only a few months after Father Howard Williams joined the congregation, our small congregation welcomed 1,000 worshippers, many brought back by the optimism and confidence expressed by the elders. Word quickly spread throughout the community to come and experience the renewed “sweet, sweet spirit at 4301 Avenue D.”
Today, 14 years later, our focus on spirituality and formation remains our main priority.
Mission and Ministry
Mindful that we were rebuilding our congregation and had considerable debt, we looked at what we had in abundance: Ourselves. We took seriously the sending out at the end of each Eucharist: “Let us go forth in the name of Christ. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” We challenged ourselves to go out, not just once, but again and again, as individuals and in our varied ministries, to learn about our community, asking what the Lord was calling each of us to do. Knowing that the act of going out can sometimes be difficult, we invested in training our ministry leaders to look inside themselves and to tap into the talents of their members to discover the connection between our vocations and our gifts and what we were learning about our immediate neighborhood.
And, we gave ourselves permission to do the work we were being called to do, to invite others to join us, and to look for the resources we needed to support these ministries.
As we began a deeper relationship within our community, we found our ministries expanding beyond acts of immediate relief, such as feeding people who are hungry and clothing those in need. Now, 14 years later, you’ll find church members actively engaged in programs related to sustainability, such as educational scholarships for young people and adults, the Girl Scouts, the Boy Scouts, nutrition, social, and exercise programs for older people, and financial support to Anglican congregations outside of the USA. We established close relationships with the first responders in the 67th precinct as well as local politicians. We stay on top of local, state, and national issues that might negatively impact our youth and seniors. Our members are invited to make their voices heard on issues that are important to them by participating in the political process be it letter writing, lobbying efforts in Albany or Washington, or other forms of advocacy. In addition, members of St. Augustine’s have actively sought and have been elected or appointed to church committees at the diocesan and provincial levels and have also served as delegates to denominational level conventions.
One of the most visible signs of our community outreach can be seen at our annual police, fire, and EMT service held on a Sunday in October. At this parish wide celebration, we acknowledge and thank the dedication and service of these public servants – many of whom we know on a first name basis. We worship together in the sanctuary and then proceed outside (weather permitting) where the surrounding streets are closed to allow for festivities including a scrumptious feast in front of the church.
Management and Finance
During our rebuilding years, we never lost sight of the importance of a strong foundation of effective management and stable finances. As we grew in the practice of our faith and in our discipleship in the community, our membership grew and our finances began to improve. While paying off the debt, purchasing insurance, and maintaining our buildings proved to be achievable goals, we never let these define who we were as a congregation. Our focus remains on serving Christ.
Our commitment to overcome our history of poor management led us to develop the guidelines we use today. Referred to as the ‘Big 7 Ps of Management’ and the ‘Big 6 of Finance,’ these practices keep us focused on our mission of restoring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. (BCP pg. 855).
The Big 7 Ps of Management (plan, personnel, property, program, procedures, polity, and policy) help us evaluate all of the ‘good ideas’ that can so easily capture imaginations and start people dreaming about the ‘what ifs.’ Central to any discussion is a review of how or where it contributes to the achievement of our overall goals to:
- Provide opportunities for new people to enter into our community of faith.
- Know and care about all individuals in our parish.
- Continually rediscover that we belong to each other and are one in Christ.
- Develop and maintain a positive relationship between our parish and the wider community.
- Welcome all people and respect the dignity of every human being.
When we started this work, members of the congregation were invited to share their time and talent by participating in the drafting of the processes and procedures that guide us. We drew upon the skills and talents not only of members of the parish but also our neighbors. At St. Augustine’s, when we speak of personnel, we include the past, current, and future volunteers who keep our many programs, ministries, and leadership committees running smoothly.
Developing the Big 6 allowed us to create sound financial principles and procedures, an essential part of this work. Again, we drew upon the skills and talents of our members to help us think about and set up best practices related to budgeting, investing, fundraising, starting an endowment, and securing grants, as well as establishing sound bookkeeping procedures and setting up committees to oversee work in these areas.
St. Augustine’s Today
Today, St. Augustine’s serves as a model for strong lay+clergy leadership teams. We continue to be organized by our three areas of focus, with our priest overseeing spirituality and formation, the vestry and a warden, mission and ministry, and another warden, management and finance. Within each of these areas are a variety of committees or, working groups, the leaders of which meet monthly with the priest and the vestry in our parish council.
We have a strong culture of transparency, encouraging all of our parish council leaders to share as much information as they can in their varied ministries and with the congregation to ensure ongoing communication. Recognizing that our strength continues to be in our members – new and continuing – our current leaders are empowered to become ambassadors who invite others to participate. Ongoing training helps our members and our neighbors become familiar with our mission, organizations, and programs.
Keeping our focus on our three organizing principles of spirituality and formation, ministry and mission, and management and finance, St. Augustine’s has been successful in both growing in membership and achieving financial viability. In 2003, the church was returned to full parish status. The then-debt has been repaid. The church and its adjunct buildings have been restored.
St. Augustine’s is ever evolving as we continue to grow in God’s grace. We are proud of our progress and will continue to intentionally persevere and live out our mission.
And today, on any given Sunday, the church is filled with worshippers who then go out into the world – and the community - to “love and serve the Lord.” Birdie Blake-Reid is a lifelong member of St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in Brooklyn, NY. She has served as a member of the bishop’s committee, warden, chairperson of the vestry bylaws and nominating/election committees, president of the Episcopal Church Women, and superintendent of Sunday school. She is a retired educator, and launched the first 24-hour day care center as executive director of DAWN Child Development Center.
- Back from the Dead: The Book of Congregational Growth by Gerald W. Keucher
- St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, Brooklyn, NY